Waiting for the next storm, Part 3: A rail corridor exposed

This is the final installment of a three-part series examining areas on Connecticut’s coast that are vulnerable to flooding. The first two stories focused on residential areas. Now, we visit a beach that suffered severe damage – which has also exposed critical infrastructure right behind it.

East Lyme — Beaches, marshes and wetlands on the coastline are often referred to as “soft armor” — meaning they protect inland areas by absorbing most storm damage before it can reach communities or critical infrastructure.

In Connecticut, many of those areas were pummeled by Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy. So as the next hurricane season looms, that “soft armor” has become perilously thin.

Rocky Neck State Park is just one example. Its beach, one of the state’s most popular destinations, is the first and only line of defense for a section of the busiest rail corridor in the United States. Amtrak and freight trains fly by several times a day, just a few hundred feet from Long Island Sound.

Superstorm Sandy severely damaged the beach, and much of the sand that served as a buffer between the sea and the rail tracks has eroded.

“There were a lot of trees that were washed up on the beach…[along with] picnic tables…boat parts, pieces of canoes, pieces of other people’s docks,” said the park’s manager, Gary Nasiatka, describing damage from the storm.

The beach is open for tourism this summer, but a sand dune took the bullet for the rail bridge just a few feet behind it. Now that shield is gone, along with fencing and vegetation that helped keep the sand in place.

“That sacrificial dune actually saved the Amtrak line from being further inundated by storm surge,” said Susan Whalen, deputy environmental commissioner for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). 

“We’re going to have to rebuild the dune, and replant it with dune grass to hopefully stabilize it.”

Park staff had just recently completed a restoration of the dune, at a cost of less than $50,000. Much of the work was done by volunteers. But now that the dune was destroyed by Sandy, it will be much more expensive to construct all over again.

The cost of the project, along with restoring a nearby tidal marsh that is a popular fishing destination, could top six figures.

“This involves actually relocating sand,” said Harry Yamalis, an environmental analyst for DEEP. “They might have to put it on trucks.” He said the task could be completed in a matter of weeks.

Whalen said the project is a priority to complete before the next hurricane season, but park officials have not received word on whether the funding will come through from the federal government.

If the dune isn’t restored, “they’re going to start to see some damage on the Amtrak line,” Nasiatka said.

Curt Johnson, attorney and program director for the environmental advocacy group Save the Sound, said the public isn’t aware of how much of Sandy hurt the natural areas on Connecticut’s coastline.

“If you’re talking about coastal impacts,” he said, referring to damaged dunes, beaches and coastal forests, “we were very much as impacted as the New York area was.” 

The federal Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it will need $8 million just to restore projects the corps was already working on at four different beaches in Connecticut, all located in Milford and West Haven. Stamford officials estimated last fall that damage just to its beaches reached several million dollars.

Johnson added that along with a misunderstanding of the extent of destruction to the natural coastline, few understand its consequences.

“Every time we enhance another acre of wetlands, every time we restore a dune in front of a community…those are all both protecting people from flooding impacts, protecting our health, and protecting the resiliency of our communities,” he said.

Sand dunes are critical to protecting nearby homes at Cosey Beach in East Haven and Chalker Beach in Old Saybrook.

“Homes…were relatively unaffected because they were behind the last remnant dunes of a system that used to extend for hundreds of hundreds of yards up and down that beach,” Johnson said.

“Over time, people have gotten rid of those pesky dunes, because, you know, they thought, ‘Oh, that doesn’t allow for quite as good a view from their living room.

“Well, guess what? Maybe that’s a system that we need to re-establish.”

At Rocky Neck State Park, a massive pile of debris still greets visitors as they drive into the beach parking area. About a mile away, nearly 1,000 feet of boardwalk that washed away during Sandy lies in another pile. Many of the 8-foot portions of the boardwalk, costing about $500 each, can likely be pieced back together, manager Gary Nasiatka said.

As for the debris — “We were hoping to get a batch grinder [to turn it into mulch],” Nasiatka said. “But I don’t know if that’ll ever come true. We may have to just try to cut it up and disperse it with the equipment we have.”